Georgia chief justice looking to restructure state law libraries

Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton

ATLANTA – A new committee of Georgia judicial leaders will look for ways to restructure the state’s law libraries to serve a growing number of citizens acting as their own lawyers, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton announced Wednesday.

“Historically, law libraries were the place lawyers and judges went to do legal research,” Melton told a joint session of the Georgia House and Senate during the annual State of the Judiciary address. “That paradigm has quickly faded, and many law libraries today sit all but abandoned as monuments to legal tomes, devoid of lawyers. … Today, just about the only people who go to law libraries are non-lawyers.”

Melton said more and more low- and even middle-income Georgians are seeking to represent themselves in civil cases because they can’t afford a lawyer. The number of self-represented Georgians has reached more than 1 million, he said.

“When people represent themselves, their unfamiliarity with the law and court procedures often results in frustration for all involved, rescheduled and protracted hearings and other inefficiencies that consume valuable state and local resources,” he said. “Our legal system is an adversarial system; people win and lose. Citizens who represent themselves more often lose.”

Melton cited two local programs at different ends of the state for their work to help fill the knowledge gap for self-represented citizens.

A self-help center launched in 2018 by the Dougherty County Law Library is now serving an average of 40 self-represented litigants a day. The Fulton County Superior Court will open its Justice Resource Center within a month.

“Self-help resource centers such as those in Fulton and Dougherty counties have the potential to embody the new role of Georgia’s law libraries: a place where citizens will gain greater access to our legal system,” Melton said.

The new task force on law libraries will be chaired by state Supreme Court Justice Charlie Bethel and Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney.

On other challenges facing the Georgia judiciary, Melton said he expects recommendations soon from a committee he formed last fall to identify and mitigate the state judicial system’s vulnerabilities to cyber attacks.

Last June, the Georgia Administrative Office of the Courts was hit by a major ransomware attack that caused some courts to lose access to electronic records from case files going back 20 years or more.

Melton pledged to support the work of the state’s Behavioral Health Innovation and Reform Commission, which the General Assembly created last year. The commission is working to identify how Georgians suffering mental health problems can become entangled in the criminal justice system.

Melton also thanked former Gov. Nathan Deal for spearheading construction of the new judicial center that bears his name, the first state building in Georgia history dedicated solely to the judiciary. The building on Capitol Avenue in downtown Atlanta was dedicated during a ceremony earlier this month.

And the chief justice praised Georgia Supreme Court Justice Robert Benham, who is retiring at the end of this week after more than 30 years on the high court. Benham, who received a standing ovation in the House chambers Wednesday, became the first African-American to sit on the state Supreme Court when then-Gov. Joe Frank Harris appointed him to the post in 1989.


Bill tightening rules on senior-care facilities advances in Georgia House

ATLANTA – Legislation bolstering regulations for assisted senior-living facilities, personal care homes and memory centers in Georgia cleared a state House committee Tuesday.

House Bill 987 aims to tighten rules on assisted-living and long-term care facilities for seniors following reports of elder neglect, poor care and financial troubles in some facilities in the state.

“We have a lot of good assisted living facilities in our state. But as always, it seems that the bad guys come along and they put a spoiler for the good people,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta.

The bill passed unanimously out of the House Health and Human Services Committee, which Cooper chairs, amid concerns over new rules for training and the costs of extra staffing.

Specifically, Cooper’s bill would require at least one direct-care staff member for every 15 senior residents during waking hours, and one for every 20 residents at night.

It would also require a licensed or registered professional nurse to be on-site at assisted living facilities for a certain amount of time each week and require all staff to undergo training in elderly and disabled-adult care.

The bill also includes a slate of rules to tighten staffing standards and training for memory care centers, which provide services for people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or other cognitive conditions.

Some lawmakers on the House committee questioned Tuesday why these types of rules were not already in state law and whether the Department of Community Health, which oversees senior-care facilities, needs more funding to better enforce safety and health standards.

“This seems like it should have been happening a long time ago,” said Rep. Shelly Hutchinson, D-Snellville.

Cooper traced issues with the facilities in part to the state’s shortage of licensed nurses and the unpredictable impact on facilities as Georgia’s senior population continues growing.

She also said Gov. Brian Kemp has committed to adding certification courses for assistant nurse practitioners to the state-funded HOPE grant program, which covers tuition costs.

“This is a big plus,” Cooper said about the grant addition.

Still, some lawmakers wondered if the new staffing requirements would create financial issues for care facilities.

Rep. John LaHood, R-Valdosta, who owns and operates several senior-living facilities and is a co-sponsor of the bill, said residents would likely have to foot a bit more of the bill if expenses go up.

“This will absolutely have to be passed on to the consumer,” LaHood said. “We were mindful of that and tried to tread lightly.”

Beyond staffing changes, Cooper’s bill would require a 60-day advance written notice of impending bankruptcy proceedings or property evictions, and a 14-day notice prior to ownership changes that could disrupt living arrangements.

Also, facility administrators would need to be newly licensed by a state board under the bill. Fines against facilities would be set at a minimum of $5,000 if a resident dies or is seriously injured.

Georgia voters may get to weigh in on standard or daylight time

ATLANTA – Georgians are divided over whether the Peach State should observe standard time all year or daylight saving time.

But they agree Georgia should stop the “spring forward” and “fall back” switching between the two that takes place twice a year.

Georgia Rep. Jimmy Pruett, chairman of the State Planning & Community Affairs Committee in the state House of Representatives, said Tuesday that’s what he hears from his constituents.

Margaret Ciccarelli, director of Legislative Affairs for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said most of the 85 e-mails she has received from teachers on the issue expressed similar sentiments.

“Almost all agree the toggling back and forth is bad for students and disruptive for families,” Ciccarelli told Pruett’s committee.

The panel held a hearing Tuesday on legislation calling for a nonbinding statewide advisory referendum asking Georgians whether the state should stick with the current system of switching between standard and daylight time twice a year, observe standard time all year or go to daylight time all year.

The same divided opinions exist among the states. Arizona and Hawaii have switched to standard time permanently, while states including California, Oregon, Washington, Utah and Maine have opted to observe daylight time all year, said Scott Yates, a citizen activist from Denver who founded an organization called LockTheClock.

Even though most states that have taken up the issue have opted for daylight time, Yates said the short-term sleep deprivation that occurs when Georgia and other states switch from standard to daylight time in the spring is unhealthy.

“The Circadian rhythm advocates for permanent standard time,” he said.

Gianluca Tosini, a neuroscience professor at Morehouse School of Medicine, cited studies showing an increase in heart attacks, strokes and auto accidents during the week after the yearly switch from standard to daylight time.

The committee did not vote on the bill Tuesday. Pruett suggested it might be a better idea for the General Assembly to decide the issue rather than hold an advisory referendum, based on research into the potential impacts of the options.

Similar legislation is pending in the Georgia Senate sponsored by Sen. Ben Watson, R-Savannah.

Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock, the sponsor of the House bill calling for a nonbinding referendum, also is pushing legislation urging the federal government to allow states to observe daylight saving time all year.

Lawmaker wants Georgia’s medical marijuana financing to get creative

ATLANTA – A Lithonia lawmaker wants to explore financing options to help minority businesses have a fair shot at participating in the Georgia’s burgeoning medical marijuana industry.

Rep. Dar’Shun Kendrick, D-Lithonia, is sponsoring a resolution that would create a study committee of state lawmakers that would meet later this year to look at financing low-interest loans for medical cannabis dispensaries owned by minorities, women and military veterans.

If created, the study committee would also consider “emerging technologies” including blockchain systems – like electronic bitcoins – that aim to “reduce or eliminate the handling of cash” in transactions involving medical cannabis.

The House Special Rules Committee did not vote on the resolution at its hearing Tuesday.

Low amounts of oil containing the active chemical in marijuana, called tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, have been legal since 2015 in Georgia for use in patients diagnosed with certain conditions like terminal cancer, severe Alzheimer’s disease, autism and post-traumatic stress disorder.

But qualifying Georgians had no legal way to acquire THC oil until last year, when state lawmakers created a commission to oversee research institutes now allowed to produce cannabis and licenses for businesses to supply it to state-registered patients.

Last year’s House Bill 324, which created the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission, also requires 20% of all licenses for cannabis-based businesses to go to minority, women and veteran-owned companies.

Kendrick told members of the committee on Tuesday that her resolution calls for finding “viable options” to meet that 20% threshold and make sure “those three groups are able to participate in the market” for medical marijuana.

Some lawmakers on the committee questioned what financing options could be available besides funding from the state, which would eat into an already tight budget as spending cuts are taking effect.

Kendrick pointed to Illinois’s recently enacted cannabis law that established a social equity program for disadvantaged business entities to qualify for low-interest loans.

She noted the study committee would explore options beyond traditional bank lending since the federal government still outlaws marijuana.

“If there are no viable ways, then obviously they would not come up with anything,” Kendrick said.

The study committee would have until December 2020 to produce recommendations if state lawmakers approve Kendrick’s resolution.

Georgia teacher pensions to allow ‘alternative investments’ with Senate bill

ATLANTA – The Georgia Senate passed a bill Tuesday that would allow the state teacher retirement fund to invest in “alternative investments” that critics view as potentially too risky.

The Teachers Retirement System is among the most major retirement plans that the state manages, along with the Employees’ Retirement System covering all other government workers besides teachers.

With thousands of beneficiaries, the teacher pension fund had a net position of nearly $79 billion through the 2019 fiscal year with roughly 20% in unfunded liability.

Senate Bill 294 would let the teacher pension fund diversify by up to 5% in alternative investments, which is same percentage available to other government-backed retirement in Georgia. Those investments could include venture capital funds, private equity and distressed debt.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Ellis Black, said contracted investors who manage the teacher pension fund have achieved returns above the national average in recent years but say they could grow the fund more by having access to other investments.

He dismissed concerns those investments might imperil the pension fund, noting the track record of the fund’s investors.

“You’ve got a whole spectrum of risk involved,” said Black, R-Valdosta. “A wise investor is going to have a balanced portfolio.”

Ellis said two-thirds of the teacher pension fund is currently invested in equities, with the remainder invested in stocks.

Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, also urged lawmakers to trust in the investing acumen of the retirement fund’s caretakers.

“They have done better than the national average with what they’ve done,” Hufstetler said. “They also tell us they can do a better job with more flexibility.”

But concerns arose from several Democratic senators worried about the risk teachers could face with more volatile investments in their retirement portfolio.

Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Stone Mountain, said lawmakers would be unwise to tamper with the pension fund with signs of a possible economic recession on the horizon. He argued teachers would rather lawmakers take a conservative approach to managing their retirement money.

“I think the conservative path is to stay the course we have,” Henson said. “I don’t think now is the time to jump into a riskier market.”

The bill now heads to the Georgia House for consideration.